July 27, 2000
He's No Nick Copernicus
By Lewis Z. Koch Special To Inter@ctive
grand repository of Internet celebrity history is Wired, the magazine
that redefined cool and hip for the digital age and transformed a generation of
techies and nerds into a colorful new aristocracy. That these latter-day knights
and lords wielded the power to create enormous wealth was, in Wired's view,
But in the last two years, Wired has become a tired satire of itself,
a gaudy purveyor of endless hype served up as epiphany. For proof, you need look
no further than the August issue's cover story, a profile of 29-year-old Marc
Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape Communications and now "leading the
red-hot [Silicon] Valley start-up Loudcloud."
Wired proclaimed: "This kid could really go places." The
playful irony of that statement, of course, is that "this kid" has
already gone places - to the highest echelons of Internet entrepreneurism as a
co-founder of Netscape, then on to the cleaners thanks to Bill Gates and
Microsoft's free Internet Explorer browser. Even before that, he was part of the
legendary team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the early
'90s who developed the first browser, Mosaic, to exploit Tim Berners-Lee's newly
invented World Wide Web.
So the guy's resume drips with pedigree, and the point of the story is that
Andreessen is back, touting a new business. But thanks to Wired's happy
hype machine, the lasting impression is that Andreessen is surrounded by
sycophants who can't wait to testify about how smoothly he walks on water. For
example, the article quoted Chuck Katz, Loudcloud's general counsel, as saying:
"Whatever Marc does is electrified - it just is. Even if he's not setting
out to change a paradigm, it happens. It has to do with the compression of
The writer himself declared: "Katz may be right." Scott Dunlop,
Loudcloud's head of product management, is even more effusive. "Marc
recounted how the Internet has changed the concept of time," he revealed.
"Then he showed, step by step, how Loudcloud is going to again compress
time, and not by a trivial amount. Time will change again now, this time by a
magnitude of three to five. Well, here was the guy who started the whole thing,
and he was back for more. Another paradigm shift was coming."
Loudcloud, according to its Web site "provides instant infrastructure
services for Internet businesses. This means we manage the software, hardware,
network and operations infrastructure of your online business as an ongoing
service, 24 by 7." OK. But when you're talking "paradigm shift,"
you're into stuff of Copernican proportions. Neither Andreessen nor Loudcloud
qualifies. The term "paradigm shift" was coined by science historian
Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolution. A
paradigm is a certain set of beliefs. Sometimes these beliefs are so
fundamentally ingrained that society accepts them as given, with religious
fervor. It is only when such a belief system crashes with a mighty roar,
literally changing our view of the universe, that we experience a paradigm
shift. This occurs when science, often by dint of the sheer power and magnitude
of some discovery by one extraordinary thinker, forces a transformation of the
human perception of how the world works. Nicolaus Copernicus went against nearly
2,000 years of accepted truth when he rejected the idea that the sun revolved
around the Earth, insisting instead that the Earth and other planets revolved
around the sun. Paradigm shift.
Isaac Newton, with his theories of gravity, triggered a fundamental
readjustment in our perception of the physical world. Paradigm shift.
Albert Einstein demonstrated that Newtonian physics described barely the
surface of an elegantly balanced universe. Paradigm shift.
Charles Darwin found our origins, Sigmund Freud our subconscious. Paradigm
Andreessen started an unproven software business that allegedly helps
companies run their businesses. But even if it works as promised, it certainly
won't compress time by a magnitude of three to five, nor cause us to change our
fundamental perceptions of the universe. Not a paradigm shift. Not even close.
But if you believe the hype Wired has bought into, then Andreessen probably has
some stock he'll want to sell you.
Who gets the credit? If Andreessen has even a minor role in any paradigm
shift, it's one that began thousands of years ago with the invention of
number-crunching and culminated in the "group-think" that fueled the
development of the computer. To whom do we assign computer parenthood? The
unknown creator of the abacus? Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, the 9th century
Persian mathematician who developed the concept of the algorithm? William
Oughtred and his slide rule? Joseph-Marie Jacquard, who invented a loom
automated with punched cards? Charles Babbage and his mathematical, celestial
and navigation tables? Vannevar Bush and his 1928 differential analyzer? Alan
Turning and his theories of artificial intelligence in 1937? Bell Labs and the
transistor? The ENIAC team in 1943? John von Neumann's work at Princeton
University's Institute for Advanced Study in 1948? The UNIVAC team in 1951? IBM
in 1953? It's a history in which Andreessen is a mere footnote.
Two books, both published this year, stand out as antidotes to the Wired
hype. Paradoxically, Paulina Borsook, the author of the first, was a writer at Wired
in its early days. Her book, a skeptical, high-heeled strut over the underbelly
of the beast titled Cyberselfish, is a Norman Mailer-esque critique that
mostly names and always skewers the libertarian denizens of Silicon Valley.
Borsook is wonderfully unrelenting and hardheaded in her pursuit of nuance,
which Mailer claimed was often more revealing than the mere fact. The other book
is Jeff Goodell's Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family
- his own. Living at the privileged epicenter of the Fountain of Plenty, the
Goodells represent the millions who prove Leo Tolstoy's observation that
"every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
We need Borsook and Goodell to bring us back to Earth, to remind us that new
products fueled by greed and market forces do not a paradigm shift make. Borsook
reveals that the emperors have no clothes. Goodell reminds us that though most
of us live in the treadmill world of Sisyphus - pushing boulders up hills only
to watch them roll down again - a good, decent and worthwhile life can be had
amid the toil. In the pages of those books one may find some truth - or at least
a more honest perspective than Wired's profile of a man who once acknowledged
himself a "media whore."